No, Aristotle Did Not ‘Create’ The Computer

For the past few days, an essay titled “How Aristotle Created The Computer” (The Atlantic, March 20, 2017, by Chris Dixon) has been making the rounds. It begins with the following claim:

The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century. Mathematical logic was pioneered by philosopher-mathematicians, most notably George Boole and Gottlob Frege, who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal “concept language,” and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.

Dixon then goes on to trace this ‘history of ideas,’ showing how the development–and increasing formalization and rigor–of logic contributed to the development of computer science and the first computing devices. Along the way, Dixon makes note of the contributions-direct and indirect–of: Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, George Boole, Euclid, Rene Descartes, Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Gottfried Leibniz, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Whitehead, Alonzo Church, and John Von Neumann. This potted history is exceedingly familiar to students of the foundations of computer science–a demographic that includes computer scientists, philosophers, and mathematical logicians–but presumably that is not the audience that Dixon is writing for; those students might wonder why Augustus De Morgan and Charles Peirce do not feature in it. Given this temporally extended history, with its many contributors and their diverse contributions, why does the article carry the headline “How Aristotle Created the Computer”? Aristotle did not create the computer or anything like it; he did make important contributions to a fledgling field, which took several more centuries to develop into maturity. (The contributions to this field by logicians and systems of logic of alternative philosophical traditions like the Indian one are, as per usual, studiously ignored in Dixon’s history.) And as a philosopher, I cannot resist asking, “what do you mean by ‘created'”? What counts as ‘creating’?

The easy answer is that it is clickbait. Fair enough. We are by now used to the idiocy of the misleading clickbait headline, one designed to ‘attract’ more readers by making it more ‘interesting;’ authors very often have little choice in this matter, and very often have to watch helplessly as hit-hungry editors mangle the impact of the actual content of their work. (As in this case?) But it is worth noting this headline’s contribution to the pernicious notion of the ‘creation’ of the computer and to the idea that it is possible to isolate a singular figure as its creator–a clear hangover of a religious sentiment that things that exist must have creation points, ‘beginnings,’ and creators. It is yet another contribution to the continued mistaken recounting of the history of science as a story of ‘towering figures.’ (Incidentally, I do not agree with Dixon that the history of computers is “better understood as a history of ideas”; that history is instead, an integral component of the history of computing in general, which also includes a social history and an economic one; telling a history of computing as a history of objects is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when we remember that actual, functioning computers are physical instantiations of abstract notions of computation.)

To end on a positive note, here are some alternative headlines: “Philosophy and Mathematics’ Contributions To The Development of Computing”; “How Philosophers and Mathematicians Helped Bring Us Computers”; or “How Philosophical Thinking Makes The Computer Possible.” None of these are as ‘sexy’ as the original headline, but they are far more informative and accurate.

Note: What do you think of my clickbaity headline for this post?

Noam Chomsky, My Palestinian Student, and a Gift

A few years ago, at Brooklyn College, I taught a class on the formal theory of computation. We covered the usual topics: finite state automata, context-free grammars, Turing machines, computational complexity. As we worked through the theory of context-free grammars, I introduced my students to the concept of their Chomsky normal forms.  As a quick preliminary, I noted that this form was due to Noam Chomsky, “the MIT linguist well-known for his seminal work on the formal theory of linguistics.” I paused, and then went on, “Interestingly enough, Professor Chomsky is equally well-known for his radical political views and activism, especially regarding American foreign policy, Israel etc.” These quick remarks made, I went on to the business of production rules, non-terminal symbols etc.

Once class ended, I walked back to my office, and began the my usual post-class activities: checking email, drinking left-over coffee etc. As I did so, there was a knock on the door. A student from my class stood there. I had seen him before in class, but he had never spoken up yet. Now, he did so. He introduced himself with an Arab name. (I’m embarrassed to say I do not remember his name.) Then, he spoke again, “Professor, I just wanted to thank you. You brought up Chomsky in class, but you didn’t just say he was a linguist. You talked about his politics too.” Surprised, I said, “Well, I didn’t say that much. Just a quick note really.” My student, though, would have none of it, “Well, professor, too many other professors would simply not mention that aspect of him, as if it was an embarrassment. As a Palestinian, it made me really happy to hear you bring him up.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this, so I thanked him for his kind words. We then chatted for a bit about his background, his family, and that was that. (I remember asking him what passport he carried, a question that always fascinates me when it comes to the modern world’s stateless.)

As the semester went by, my student and I only spoke a few more times. He was unfailingly polite and courteous, and diligent with his work. We might have talked once more about Israel and Palestine, perhaps when some Middle East crisis du année had occurred. Finally, the semester wound down; I assigned the students their final exams, graded them, handed in their grades. Shortly thereafter, one day as I worked in my office, there was a knock on the door again. Once again, it was my student. In his hand, he held what looked like a gift-wrapped item. He thanked me for the class and then handed over the package, saying “This is for you, just a thank-you.” I was a little nonplussed and tried to decline, but again, he was persistent, pressing it into my hands, saying it was just a trifle. Finally, I thanked him and opened my gift. It was a copy of Avi Shlaim’s  The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab WorldHe went on, “I think you might find this interesting.” I agreed.

I lost contact with my student shortly thereafter; I often wonder where he is now. I often wondered too, what he must have felt like, unable, all too often, because of the settings he found himself in, unable to say what was on his mind; I wondered how much he had heard that he couldn’t respond to; I wondered how limited he must have felt his various avenues of expression to be if the mere mention of Chomsky’s activism by a professor in a classroom had felt like an affirmation of a kind.